Thursday, September 20, 2012

The 'Person' In "Personal Property": The Words

"Neither as clever nor as interesting as it appears to think it is, The Words maroons its talented stars in an overly complex, dramatically inert literary thriller that's ultimately a poor substitute for a good book," so runs the RottenTomatoes.com review, granting it a mere 18% approval rating among film critics. This is one of those films which prompts me to make several statements in advance: I don't have a typical value system for "entertainment value," nor do I try to decide whether or not this would be a film you would enjoy, rather, I look at the films as social documents, each entering into a cultural dialogue of issues and events within us right now and what those issues are doing to us; on that level, Brian Klugman's and Lee Sternthal's The Words has quite a bit to say, but perhaps the critics don't want to hear it.
The film opens with Hammond (Dennis Quaid) reading his book to an audience about Rory (Bradley Cooper) who found the manuscript written by The Old Man (Jeremy Irons) which he had lost after World War II when he was an ex-patriot living in Paris with his new French wife. The film moves in and out of the stories of these three men, artfully destabilizing that fine line between fact and fiction. In a very basic sense, this poster design is highly existential because of the way in which words and how and why we use them make up our identity and contribute to the framework of our existence, artfully illustrated within the film by the thumb print of The Old Man when he was young and typing "the story" and over which Rory places his own thumb.
All art makes decisions, it makes choices and promotes values that it believes an audience will "buy into" so they will engage the art on some level (for example, the artist has to decide, "Am I going to uphold 'love' as a value my audience will understand, believe in and engage, or does love no longer exist as a viable virtue?"); the premise The Words builds upon, the most basic foundation is, The Old Man has a story, and it's his story, it doesn't belong to anyone else: the story of his life, and the way he choose to tell the story, belong to him and are a part of his personal property. Why is this important? In a political culture where "redistribution of wealth" has become a part of rhetoric and protests, and socialism and capitalism are actively competing in films to edge out the other over which economic model best facilitates art and artists, The Words says a lot!
Whether it's The Raven exaiming the life of Edgar Allan Poe, Midnight In Paris glorifying the American ex-patriots, the transition from silent films to talkies in The Artist, or Andy Warhol's fight against communism in Men In Black III, art and artists have a consistent hold on themes of the last year and whether it's better to "pay your dues" to create art or artists should be funded so they don't have to suffer, The Words examines the issues in the lives of all three writers, Hammond in his "elegant" New York apartment, Rory struggling and having to ask his dad for money and The Old Man when he was young working as a reporter so he could pay his bills and learn more about writing. There is a part when it almost appears that The Words is going to sway towards socialism, making the case that, had Rory been funded properly, and the market be based on merit, not capitalist whimsy and trends, Rory wouldn't have had to steal from The Old Man and his first novel could have been published and all would have been well, but it doesn't, the decision to steal the manuscript, word for word, misspelled word for misspelled word and comma for comma, was Rory's and he knew exactly what he was doing (it was an artistic decision, not a monetary one prompting his "theft"), which leads us to why we read books at all: if the words and the images and the emotions belong to Ernest Hemingway, what do I or do I not get out of reading it? Am I stealing when I read The Sun Also Rises, or does something else take place? Given that Silver Linings Playbook, Midnight In Paris and The Words all reference Hemingway (not to mention The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald coming out in December) it would be a wise theme to ponder as to Hemingway "bridging" the pond between the US and France and what his works mean to Americans specifically today as they are re-appearing in films for our consideration.
When The Old Man confronts Rory (and this happens within the text Hammond has written), we begin to realize there isn't any such thing as "the words," because all words belong to someone because words must be spoken, written, stylized and fit into grammatical frameworks to become a part of our being and history, (for example, no one can choose for me what words I write or don't write, no one can choose if I want to mis-spell words, or use big words, quote someone else, or throw in something random; of course there is the argument that one, words are like drops of water within the ocean, and we take the word we need, as we need it, never paying for it, words are just there for us to express ourselves and become a part of ours elf and our story, our history, like the earth's raw materials (and, two, someone could even argue that words all belong to Webster in the dictionary and we merely borrow; this is a wonderful philosophical debate and I know the exact thinkers I would love to see commenting upon it!)
Rory (foreground) walks through Central Park with The Old Man following him in the distance, where he will sit down on a bench beside him, make him a bit uncomfortable with lots of small talk, then snag him and accuse him. Because the film gives us "a story within a story within a story" it exists--and promotes--a chaotic universe, i.e., a universe balanced on an equilibrium, not a evolutionary or Darwinistic universe. This is important in the trend of films as of late because more and more films are siding with this interpretation (The Avengers, Men In Black III, The Bourne Legacy, The Cabin In the Woods, just to name a few), creating a universe wherein God is possible (not necessary, but possible, against the evolutionary universe that states nature created man and man has no soul nor destiny). We can't say that films utilizing a chaotic universe instead of the evolutionary universe are calling for a return to God, however, they inherently debunk the basic tenants of Darwin and the secular manifesto of self-identity within culture.
"Do you think you can just steal a man's life and there be no price to pay?" The Old Man asks Rory in the greenhouse when Rory has come to "make things right" and confess to the lie as well as give all the gains from the book to The Old Man (who refuses it). We have to remember, the story written by The Old Man was about life after World War II, the Holocaust, the deaths of the soldiers (a point is made of The Old Man relating how he saw only one dead body during the whole war, but limiting the dead to just one really makes it an intimate, singular encounter).
When The Old Man encounters Rory in Central Park, before The Old Man lets Rory know what he knows about the real origin of the book, The Old Man asks Rory to sign his copy of the now-famous book but Rory doesn't have a pen; "A writer without a pen," The Old Man quips, but it's more than just a inside joke, it's literally The Old Man who has the pen, not only of the book to be signed, but of the situation, The Old Man is the one in control. In the scene above, when Rory has traced down The Old Man to the greenhouse where he works (symbolic of both The Old Man's soul has a garden of virtues the flowers symbolize and one spiritually advanced because he's not burdened by the worldly pursuits to which Rory has given himself) The Old Man roughly suggests that Rory buy some Swedish Ivy which is another writerly sub-text commentary on Rory's not being a writer, because Swedish Ivy isn't really ivy at all. 
There's a great deal more which could easily be written about The Words, and that's in part why I am stopping now, because I could endlessly go on and on, but I believe the "heart of the film" to be this obvious issue over ownership and identity, a mysterious boundary of words who have no owner, and yet we consume them voraciously in our never-ending work of art that is our most intimate being. To have framed today's political debate within this context is a stroke of genius which I applaud loudly and gratefully for drawing my attention to what I do so effortlessly every second of my being: steal the words to make them my own.